Why didn't Boro's 4-3-3 first half display work against Forest?
Middlesbrough went into last Saturday’s game away at the City ground full of confidence and expectation after back to back home wins softened the defeat to Wolves in the opening game of the season.
Boro have started slow in each of the three games before Forest, and unsurprisingly we didn’t look up to the speed of our opposition. However, we didn’t start to make an impact in the game until the 40th minute when Patrick Bamford’s shot spurred Boro forward. The second half was welcomed with Adam Forshaw getting replaced by the ever lively Adama Traore. We went on to dominate the second half, however failing to convert golden opportunities left us scratching our heads as we carry on our woeful away form.
On paper this looked exactly the same starting lineup and system we had deployed against Burton Albion earlier in the week. Yet, it was far from the 4-3-3 system which had been successful in the two previous games. Due to the changes I will get on to, a lot of Boro players weren’t as effective as they should have been, which may have been the reason for them struggling to see what there job role actually was. I am mainly talking about the midfield three which didn’t click in the first half, whilst also mentioning other positions.
Adam Clayton’s role for Boro in home game’s has been talked about a lot upon Boro fans, and has arguably been Boro’s most effective player. He drops into the defence when Boro push forward allowing the fullbacks to push higher and act as wingers. Monk has capitalised on Clayton’s defensive and passing ability by converting him into a deep line playmaker. Clayton dropping into a back 3 allows more space in the centre of the pitch for one of the three forwards to drop into, usually Paddy or Britt. This allows a quicker transition from defence to attack, which we lacked under Aitor.
The previous two home games have seen Boro set up with Clayton dropping into the defence, which has allowed the fullbacks to push up to make a 3-4-3 when going forward, however this identity was lost when we kept a 4-3-3 shape when in the transition process. This was telling as in the first half, we had no width when going forward, making it easy for Forest, attacking down the middle, allowing them to exploit the wide areas, creating an overload on either side. Christie and Friend were occasionally caught with the ball in our third, as the lack of width meant they had limited passing options, and all were into the centre of the pitch. With Clayton dropping, this allows more freedom for the fullbacks to push forward meaning they receive the ball higher up the pitch and also allows us to be a threat from wide areas as well as through the centre.
(Left V Burton, Right V Forest: Clayton (8) furthest CM back, Howson (16) pushing forward V Burton. V Forest, Forshaw furthest back, not much space in the centre of the pitch.)
Adam Forshaw and Jonny Howson have had a strange start to the season. Adam Forshaw more so. His willingness to get on the ball makes him seem a player full of confidence, yet his insistence to keep possession instead of making a clinical pass to the forwards strikes me as the type of player Monk was looking to sell this summer. Forshaw was dropping deep on Saturday which meant we had less presence when in possession. I’d have liked to see Forshaw push higher and press, similar to the role Howson played, although I am doubtful he has the athletic capabilities Howson contains. Jonny Howson may not be as settled as we would like him after 4 games, but we have already started to see what he will offer. When receiving the ball, he is always looking for one of the front three, whilst has also had quite a few shots, which shows his attacking intent and confidence in his own ability. Against Forest, due to the lack of width from Boro this pushed either of Adam Forshaw or Jonny Howson out to close down which then created more space for Forest to exploit in the centre of the pitch, which made it difficult for the midfield three.
The front three for the second time away from home so far have been a bit lost, although Rudy Gestede was the standout performer from the front three. I believe this is because he was the only one with a set job. Due to his height, he was used as a target man to link up with Britt and Paddy which was effective. However, when either of Assombalonga or Bamford dropped deep to receive the ball, they didn’t really know what to do with it because they were crowded out in the centre of the pitch. This is why the full backs were essential in the system, as the forwards would then be able to link up with the wide men, which instantly created 5 men going forward (3 forwards and 2 full backs) with Jonny Howson supporting, although Adam Forshaw should have pushed further up as well.
(Avg positions V Forest; Bamford dropping deep creates one less attacking outlet. Full backs passing options in the centre, which is crowded.)
Patrick Bamford (Number 11), who has starred at home this season figured much deeper than he should have been against Forest. As you are able to see in the player's average positions above, he was dropping to act as a No.10, but is far more effective when on the ball further up the pitch. If he had pushed higher, this would have gave an extra option further forward, and created space for the midfield three to work in.
In the first half, Boro looked unorganised and opted for the long ball on numerous occasions, which just saw the ball return to the opposition. If Monk isn’t wanting to use Adam Clayton in the role he has been deployed at home then I can’t see a way for Boro to get the best out of the players, which is why I think Monk may opt for a 4-2-3-1 or system the next time we play away. This will keep us defensively organised, whilst also creating width when going forward. A possible line up may be; Randolph; Christie, Fry, Gibson, Friend; Clayton, Howson; Adama, Baker, Bamford; Assombalonga.
At home, due to the respect Boro get given when in possession, we are able to play a 4-1-2-1-2 system. But as we have found out away from home, we are able to dictate play as much so Monk may opt for a more structured approach rather than relying on the attacking quality of our front three.
Infographics via @Boroform